Turtles are in demand as pets, leading to a rise in poaching
By Michael Casey, The Associated Press
PROVIDENCE, RI (AP) — Swimming in two plastic boxes inside a sterile, brightly lit quarantine room at the Rhode Island Zoo, 16 baby-sized turtles are a growing concern for Governor Le Perotti.
These eastern musk turtles, known to spend most of their lives in swamps and ponds and emit a foul odor when threatened, were recently confiscated in a wildlife bust. And while the reptiles are common, their illegal online sale is of great concern to Perotti, who runs conservation programs at the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence.
“We are seeing a slight increase in turtle overfishing,” he said. “It has become tough as we are seeing thousands of turtles leave the United States on a yearly basis. … Turtle populations cannot take this kind of a hit with so much removal out of the wild.”
Wildlife trade experts believe that poaching – driven by growing demand for pets in the United States, Asia and Europe – is contributing to the global decline of rare freshwater turtle and tortoise species. One study found that more than half of the 360 live tortoise and tortoise species are at risk of extinction.
Such concerns prompted dozens of proposals to increase protection for freshwater turtles at the 184-nation Conference on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) held in Panama from November 14 to November 25.
It can be difficult to find accurate figures on the turtle trade, especially the illegal trade. Based on US Fish and Wildlife Service data, Tara Easter, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan who studies commerce, estimated that the commercial export trade of mud turtles in the United States increased from 1,844 in 1999 to nearly 40,000 in 2017. and musk turtles from 8,254 in 1999 to more than 281,000 in 2016.
In their CITES proposal to ban or restrict commercial trade in more than 20 species of mud turtles, the United States and several Latin American countries cited data from Mexico that found nearly 20,000 were seized, mostly at Mexico City’s airport, from 2010 to 2022.
Among the world’s most trafficked animals, freshwater turtles are targeted by criminal networks that connect to online buyers and then transport the reptiles to black markets in Hong Kong and other Asian cities. From there, they are sold as pets, to collectors and for commercial breeding, food and traditional medicine. In many countries, trade is poorly regulated or not regulated at all.
The profitable business – some species of turtles desirable for their colorful shells or exotic looks can fetch thousands of dollars in Asia – add to the threats that turtles already face. These include climatic changes, habitat destruction, road deaths, and predators eating their eggs.
Experts say poachers are a particular problem, as they target rare species and adult females that are breeding. Many species of turtle, which can live for several decades, do not reach reproductive maturity for a decade or more.
“The loss of large numbers of adults, especially females, can lead to a spiral decline for turtles from which they cannot recover,” said Dave Collins, director of North American turtle conservation for the Turtle Survival Alliance. “Turtles have very low reproductive levels, and they produce very few eggs each year.”
Since 2018, the Collaboration Against Illegal Trade in Turtles—an organization made up mostly of state, federal and tribal biologists fighting poaching of North American turtles—has documented at least 30 major smuggling cases in 15 states. Some shared a few dozen turtles, others several thousand.
Easter at the University of Michigan identified 59 US cases over the past 20 years involving about 30,000 illegally traded turtles.
Earlier this year, a federal judge in North Carolina sentenced a man to 18 months in prison and a $25,000 fine for trading turtles in violation of the Lacey Act. The law prohibits trade in fish, wildlife or plants that are illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold.
The man traded 722 eastern box turtles – North Carolina’s reptiles – as well as 122 spotted tortoises and three woodland turtles through a broker for markets in Asia. The man received more than 120 thousand dollars for the turtles, which are worth 1.5 million dollars in Asia.
In 2021, a Chinese national was sentenced to 38 months in prison and a $10,000 fine for money laundering after he previously pleaded guilty to financing a nationwide smuggling ring that sent 1,500 turtles worth more than $2.2 million from the United States to China.
The man used PayPal to buy turtles from US buyers to advertise them on social media and reptile websites and sold them to reptile markets in Hong Kong.
In 2020, a New Jersey man was sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay $350,000 in damages and fines for smuggling 1,000 turtles from Oklahoma to New Jersey in candy wrappers and socks.
The illegal trade has prompted governments to propose for the first time that 42 species of turtles be included on the CITES list – including the North American musk turtle. Although some species such as the eastern musk tortoise are as common, being listed means that traders will need a permit to sell them internationally. Commercial sale of other species such as the alligator muscle turtle, found in the US Gulf states of up to £200, will be limited.
The proposals would also tighten regulations for the 13 others already listed for protection.
“We think this is really really important just because of the trends that we’ve seen over the past two decades in the international trade of reptiles and especially turtles,” said Matthew Strickler of the US Department of the Interior, who will lead the US delegation at CITES. .
He said, “There is a huge demand from Southeast Asia for food and the pet trade, but also from Europe, for pets as well. We’ve seen this pattern of turtles being exhausted in one place, and then poachers, traffickers, and traders moving on to another. Southeast Asia is exhausted.” They moved to Africa. Now, we see them move to the Americas.”
Baby musk turtles were spotted for sale online by a Rhode Island Environmental Police intern. They were only $20 each. Turtles, which grow up to five inches (13 cm) and live for decades, are brown or black in color with a white or yellow streak along their heads.
Police arrested the seller in September after arranging a secret purchase at his home. The seller paid a $1,600 fine for owning a crawler without a permit. The hope is that the turtles, now isolated at the Providence Zoo, are free of injuries and disease and can be released back into the wild.
Harold Joyce, the environmental police investigator who handled the case, said: “Obviously when we talk about the removal of native species even for pets, it has a huge impact. Wildlife marketing has an impact on wildlife that we can’t even really do. We need to. to move forward on these things.”
For Piroti, the director of the conservation, it was a reminder that the illicit trade that once concentrated in Asia is increasingly taking place in his backyard.
“I couldn’t believe there was a market for it and someone was mass-producing it or collecting it on a large scale to make a few dollars,” he said. $20 turtle. This is ridiculous. …Wildlife is not a commodity that anyone benefits from.”
Follow Michael Casey on Twitter: @mcasey1
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